Charter schools are public schools and deserve more equitable funding

Feb 12, 2020 | Blog

Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

This month, Washington’s voters will consider 184 public-school levies and 20 bond measures representing a collective $6.75 billion, according to the Washington Education Association (WEA).

But, even if voters approve the measures, the state’s nine charter schools won’t see a single dime.

Washington’s public charter schools receive state funding for basic education, just as traditional public schools do — money follows each student. But they are not allowed to augment those budgets through enrichment levies or bonds. The net result is a systematic underinvestment in these public schools specifically intended to support young learners from underserved communities. The Washington State Charter Schools Association estimates the funding disparity amounts to between $1,000 and $3,000 per student, depending on the school district.

Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah and Rep. Eric Pettigrew of Renton, both Democrats, sponsored bills to address this inequity, but neither has advanced out of committee. Lawmakers should not allow charter-school students again to suffer from the hostility and political sway of the teachers union, which previously sued to stop them, and some traditional school district leaders.

The state provides local effort assistance — also called levy equalization — of up to $1,500 per pupil to property-poor school districts that would have difficulty raising revenues through local levies. SB 6550 and HB 2788 seek to provide charters with similar funding to mirror the previous year’s enrichment levy of their surrounding school district, but no more than $1,500 per student. Just as with other state funding for charters, the grants would be paid with lottery revenues from the Opportunity Pathways Account, not the general fund.

This is the second consecutive year lawmakers have failed to secure more equitable funding for Washington’s charters. Last year, charters were stripped from legislation that included local effort assistance funding for tribal compact schools beginning in 2022.

Since voters approved charters by initiative in 2012, there has been a persistent misconception that these public alternatives somehow threaten traditional public schools. At a public hearing last month, WEA President Larry Delaney went so far as to call charters part of a “national agenda led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos to privatize public education by diverting public dollars from public schools overseen by locally elected school boards to private organizations that are not accountable to taxpayers or local voters.”

That’s a shameless smoke screen. In fact, Washington charters long predate the controversial education chief’s tenure. And the Obama administration strongly supported charters. They do not siphon resources from public schools. They are public schools — providing an important alternate educational model at no charge to Washington youth.

They undergo annual performance reviews and ongoing oversight by the State Charter School Commission and other state agencies. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently ranked Washington’s charter-school law as one of the best in the nation, in part, because of its robust accountability measures.

A Stanford University study concluded the state’s charter system is off to a promising start, finding that charter-school students showed similar educational growth, on average, as their peers in traditional schools. Some charters showed significantly greater academic progress. English language learners thrived.

Certainly, continued scrutiny and oversight are needed to ensure the state’s charter schools deliver excellent education. But it is past time for die-hard philosophical opponents to cease their efforts to undermine Washington’s charter schools.

Their success — and the success of their students — depends on equitable state support.